What next for Agniveers?

Harsha Kakar
One of the reasons for the ruling BJP losing votes in recently concluded elections was the Agnipath scheme introduced by the last Government with much fanfare in June 2022 and implemented in Sept that year. All those who had been selected by the earlier system, but the process delayed due to COVID, were not considered, adding to heartburns. The first batch of Agniveers began joining their units, post training, from June 2023. They have barely completed a year of service out of the mandated four.
To provide a boost to the concept, PM Modi addressed the first batch of Agniveers soon after they joined their training centres in Jan 2023. The top brass of the three services were not to be left behind and interacted with them during their visits. Their passing out from training centres made news. Deaths of Agniveers resulted in political debates on their being granted status of battle casualties as also quantum of financial assistance provided.
The scheme was introduced to the nation by the three service chiefs in the presence of the Defence Minister. It was more of a photo-op and intended to offset criticism, which was already brewing. Shortcomings of the scheme were discussed in all media networks from the moment it was announced, largely by veterans, many of whom possess an indepth understanding of military ethos and customs.
In many stations, senior military personnel interacted with veterans aiming to convince them that the scheme was beneficial to all, the soldier and the system. The basic messaging was that Agnipath is the future and should be accepted. None had expected the scheme would be amongst the most debated topics in parliamentary elections and draw political criticism even from allies. While its military drawbacks were being highlighted regularly, what possibly remained under the radar is its societal impact, which was politically exploited.
For the common Indian, a Government job is a lifetime blessing, for which he/she is willing to sacrifice his education level appointment and even offer a bribe. Government service provides job security to the individual and financial security to more than just one family, a most desired pension as also other benefits including medical, all of which are missing in the Agnipath scheme. The marriage market is higher when an individual has permanent employment in any Government department.
It is for this reason that thousands of overqualified individuals apply for grade III vacancies in departments, whose basic qualification is class X. A news report of Aug 2018 mentions ‘3,700 PHDs holders, 50,000 graduates, 28,000 Post Graduates have applied for 62 posts of messengers in UP police.’ The same is the desperation for Government jobs across the nation.
The pre-Agnipath rush for recruitment in the army was security in employment, not national spirit, which was subsequently imbibed during training and post joining units. It is well known that a soldier fights and dies for his unit and his buddies.
Comfort of job security can never be replaced by promises for the future, including assured employment post the contractual period or even payment of a lumpsum, as the Agnipath scheme advocates. The unknown remains a matter of concern at grassroot levels. Unless fulfilment of promises, especially from politicians, has been experienced, the public remains doubtful. That is our Indian nature.
Had the first batch completed its service and been placed in their second career, prior to elections, its exploitation by politicians would not have been as effective. In fact, it could have been the reverse. Alarm bells should have rung, high in political circles, when it was noticed that numbers applying for Agnipath were far lower than before the scheme was introduced.
Thus, the timing of implementing the scheme was wrong. Political opponents exploited this vulnerability by promises of scrapping it altogether. Possibly those who had designed the scheme had never expected such backlash, especially after the hype it was initially provided including promises by all senior Government functionaries.
Such was the political fallout during elections that most allies of the Government have demanded its review. Logically, changing concepts of employment impacting national security should never have been rushed or bulldozed. Schemes which involve changes to the normal must be implemented only post detailed discussions and after a pilot project has been successfully run. There are vast differences in training and employment of foot soldiers and technical personnel. A common yardstick can never be applied.
The methodology adopted seemed to be that the decision to implement Agnipath was conveyed, providing limited leeway to those implementing the same for tweaking it. The feedback mechanism, most essential when new concepts are being introduced, was shut, roughly implying that the scheme was bulldozed.
It appears to have been designed by those residing in glass palaces, out of touch with grassroot desires and hopes. It also displays that the then political leadership assumed that it was infallible and whatever it decided and implemented would be acceptable. Even dropping of application numbers did not raise eyebrows. It is also possible that no one was willing to bell the cat and inform the national leadership that the scheme’s acceptance levels are low.
Any changes in organization structures and methodology of staffing need to undergo periodical reviews to assess shortcomings. Thus, the armed forces are conducting their internal assessment and would soon be placing its findings and recommendations before the Government. Their assessment would involve departmental shortfalls flowing from shorter tenures of soldiers, especially where it concerns technical or specialist training. Most of these have been known to the forces since the scheme’s inception.
There are also issues at the societal level. Unless the mindset of the common Indian is changed, such schemes would be viewed with scepticism. Scrapping it would be political suicide for the Government. It would open doors for greater pressure from an already buoyed opposition. Tweaking it to enhance satisfactions levels is more likely.
Recommendations of the armed forces on the scheme catering for greater acceptability as also meeting its operational commitments must be seriously considered. With states moving for elections in a few months, there appears to be limited choice but for the Government to act fast. It cannot ignore Agnipath and Agniveers anymore. This may itself be a blessing in disguise.
The author is Major General (Retd)